Local Players Conjure Magic: The Gathering

Jun 6, 2019

The Gathering cards feature a cornucopia of characters,powers,and artwork.
Credit Jason Barr

Later this year, the card game Magic: The Gathering will hold a major qualifier tournament in Richmond. The grand prize is a half a million dollars and a seat at the national championship, where prizes can reach even higher.  To get a sense of the magic, WMRA’s Jason Barr talked with a few members of the M-T-G gaming community in Harrisonburg.

[Sounds from a M:TG tourney]

It happens all over the world, in almost every city and town.  Groups of people get together and they play.  Sometimes they have a ball, sometimes they have cards, sometimes they have boards.  These are what scholars call 'gaming communities,' which are basically little subsets of people drawn together by common interests.

Mike Lam is an assistant professor of computer science at James Madison University, and a faculty adviser for PlayMU, a video gaming organization on campus.
Credit Mike Lam

MIKE LAM: And it’s really just a community of people who enjoy playing various different kinds of games, and they enjoy hanging out with each other.

Mike Lam is a professor of computer science at James Madison University, and although he’s not a gaming community 'scholar,' he’s the faculty adviser for PlayMU, a video gaming community on campus.

LAM: There is a little bit of a difference between competitive games and cooperative games, and you’ll get a sort of a different dynamic there, but I think in general, they just enjoy playing games, and they enjoy playing games in communities. For things like role-playing, they enjoy the shared storytelling aspects of building a character and then walking it through various scenarios.

Right now, one of those communities is in the build-up to the biggest event of their year.  Fans and players of the card game created by Wizards of the Coast called Magic: The Gathering, or MTG for short, are participating in increasingly larger and more competitive tournaments on their way to the MTG World Championship in December.  In fact, Wizards of the Coast recently committed ten million dollars to boost the visibility of Magic: The Gathering the card game, as well as the online version of the game.  And big money is involved, with a prize pool of three-quarters of a million dollars.  

Josh Roberts works at Gamer Oasis in Harrisonburg.  He’s also a long-time MTG player, and he’s studying to become a judge of the game.  He says going to the bigger tournaments can be a unique experience for the MTG fan:

Josh Roberts works at Gamer Oasis and helps Magic: The Gathering fans find the cards and resources they need.
Credit Jason Barr

JOSH ROBERTS: It's really cool to be in like a show hall with about a thousand other Magic players. It's a really cool experience.

As a card game, Magic: The Gathering is unique, with dragons, trolls, wizards, and other magical creatures. Players buy packs of cards to form a unique deck, or they can purchase single rarer cards that have different powers. Each card has different abilities, and it’s up to you how and when to play them. Josh Roberts describes the game as a mix between chess and poker.

JOSH ROBERTS: So you have a 60 card deck and you know all of the cards that are in that deck just like you know all of the 52 cards that are in a poker deck. So you know you can see what's in your hand you know what's in the deck. And so you can make a general plan of what you're going to do throughout the game.  And where the chess comes in is Magic has creatures that can deal damage and spells that interact with those creatures or with the other player and a wide variety of different things. And so it becomes a chess game because you have to interact with your opponent's board state. You have to interact with your opponent's hand.

And, like all gaming communities, MTG has its own unique language.  It sounds like this:

[Players talking to each other about game]

A small Magic: The Gathering tournament at Gamer Oasis.
Credit Jason Barr

Needless to say, the learning curve can be steep.  But, Josh Roberts says, the MTG community is always willing to lend a hand.  

JOSH ROBERTS: I asked them for tips. How do you do this? What cards should I get? Am I even playing the right deck to begin with? And the Magic: The Gathering community for the most part can be very friendly for people that are trying to learn and up their competitive game.

Kaitlin Bosch has been playing Magic: The Gathering competitively for four years now.  She switched to Magic from another card game, Yu-Gi-Oh!.  She enjoys the strategy and challenge of the game.

KAITLIN BOSCH: So it's definitely fun to kind of challenge myself and definitely in the competitive scene because the players are a little bit higher caliber than in the casual scene. It helps me to see how I can make my decks better and more versatile against more kinds of decks.

Another selling point for Kaitlin is the fantasy role-playing elements of the game.

KAITLIN BOSCH: That's one thing that I really enjoy about Magic is that it is such a well-designed game that you can imagine yourself as a wizard on a battlefield summoning these cool monsters and casting these cool spells. But because the artwork and the world-building of Magic is so well done and so cohesive, it's so easy to imagine yourself inside of the game and that's a super compelling point for me. I love that part.

Later this year, Magic will have several tournaments with a national focus.  And the tabletop game will have a national qualifier in Richmond in November with a grand prize of a half a million dollars, where players across the East Coast—including some from the Shenandoah Valley—will test their skills.